Thanks to their bungled suspension of Parliament, the Tories were forced to hold their annual conference this week while the Commons was sitting. This meant rationing the number of MPs and ministers allowed to travel to their events in Manchester.
Tory MP’s complained this was “unfair” with Conservative Party chair James Cleverly saying “the bottom line is conference is really, really important” because it lets Tory Ministers “interact with our wider membership.”
But here in Manchester it is obvious that ministers want to “interact” with a bevy of corporate lobbyists as much as any “wider membership,” and the Whips Office are granting the special slips required to get leave from the Commons so MPs can hang out with privatising corporations, arms industry ghouls and hated disability assessors Atos.
French corporation Atos make hundreds of millions from privatised disability benefits testing for the UK government. This June the government quietly extended one of their huge contracts – testing for the Personal Independence Payment – for two years, even though the company’s performance has been heavily criticised.
So severe was the criticism, in fact, that Atos lost their other major benefits-testing contract in 2015. The company’s treatment of disabled claimants generates real anger – they are the kind of corporation you might think a government would avoid, or at least keep under pressure. Instead, one minister, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, held two events with Atos at Tory conference.
On Sunday, she and Science Minister George Freeman sat on an Atos panel discussing artificial intelligence. On Monday, I went to another Atos-funded meeting with Nicky Morgan on a ‘Digital Vision for Britain.’ Atos sponsored the meetings – paying for the room and the snacks. In return their lobbyist, Kulveer Ranger, spoke from the platform.
Ranger opened his speech by offering “a word from our sponsor,” who he said are “one of the world’s largest technology firms” and “number one in Europe.” Kulveer Ranger himself shows how privatisers like political insiders: he was formerly one of Boris Johnson’s advisors when Johnson was London Mayor, and is active in Tory circles.
The hundred or so delegates at the meeting were also given Atos’ own manifesto, a ‘Digital Vision for Digital Britain’ – a vision that includes corporations like Atos running “the delivery of public services.” Nobody at the meeting once referred to any problems associated with Atos, such as how it has driven those who need its services into destitution.
Instead, Nicky Morgan spoke about how the “public and private sectors work together” and how she was “struck by how the private sector really do want to work together with government.” The digitisation of benefits, she said ominously, was “particularly relevant for Atos.”
There are no real votes of any substance at Tory conference, no possibility of delegates forcing a change on their MPs. But there is plenty of this: ‘consultation’ of members by means of exposing them to paid-for lobbying events.
If delegates want to hear new Defence Secretary Ben Wallace discuss the world, they can do so courtesy of arms firm Raytheon who sponsored another conference event I attended. Raytheon make the Paveway IV guided bomb – many of which were manufactured in the UK, sold to Saudi Arabia and used in the Yemen war.
Secretary Wallace was keen to discuss whether the UK is “an expeditionary country” or whether we “just have a big budget.” Either approach would be good news for Raytheon, who had their lobbyists at the meeting. They were duly thanked for their “partnership” at the event. This was, mind you, somewhat sober compared to a similar Raytheon-funded event I attended at the 2018 Tory conference, when then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson blurted out “I love Raytheon.”
Therese Coffey is the new Work and Pensions Secretary, following Amber Rudd’s recent resignation. Her top priority was to come to Conservative conference and address a breakfast meeting alongside Hitchen MP Bim Afolami, a Tory “rising star.” The meeting was organised by Onward, a new Tory think tank, but funded by gig economy giant Deliveroo.
Deliveroo has, of course, been at the heart of numerous industrial actions in recent times over how badly they treat their workers. Deliveroo riders are nominally self-employed, as a way of getting around their employment rights – and the company has faced court cases and strikes internationally from workers who say this is bogus and exploitative.
The Deliveroo-funded meeting at Tory conference reflected none of this. Bim Afolami MP declared that he “knew some of Deliveroo’s guys and they are doing great work.” Will Tanner, formerly Theresa May’s Deputy Head of Policy and now director of the Onward think tank, chaired the meeting. He set the tone by saying Deliveroo “have done more than most to reform the world of work.”
Deliveroo’s own Head of Public Affairs, Giles Derrington, addressed the meeting at length. Successful tech firms are known in the industry as “unicorns” – and Derrington claimed Deliveroo was “a special pink, sparkly kind of unicorn.” As well as generally singing Deliveroo’s praises, Derrington nakedly and at length lobbied for the firm’s “charter of rights.”
Derrington portrayed Deliveroo as simply unfortunate – the company couldn’t pay riders sick pay “because we are not their employer.” If, however, their charter of rights was accepted, Deliveroo would be able to give riders sick pay. Unfortunately, this charter would be in place of riders’ existing rights – and would stop any legal challenge to their self-employed status. If the government authorise Deliveroo’s charter then, Derrington told the conference room in the five-star hotel, the courts “can’t reinterpret the employment status” of their riders.
But the corporate lobbyists at Tory conference went beyond more established names. One of the most striking presences was Juul, an American e-cigarette company who have so abused their position that even Donald Trump wants to ban some of their products.
E-cigarettes are marketed as a smoking cessation product, encouraging existing smokers to switch to vaping. However, Juul have sold so hard to the young, with “lollipop” flavours and youth-oriented marketing that they have contributed to what campaigners call an “epidemic” of youth vaping in the USA. They are precisely the kind of misbehaving corporation responsible politicians would want to keep at arms length, or even crack down on. But Juul were a high profile lobbying presence at Conservative Party conference.
I went to one Juul-sponsored meeting organised by the Centre For Policy Studies (CPS), one of the Tories’ most venerable think tanks. Founded by Margaret Thatcher, the CPS are having a series of events in their own purpose built theatre inside the conference building, decorated with a life size cardboard cut-out of Thatcher herself.
The CPS advertised Junior Health Minister Jo Churchill as a speaker at Juul’s event, but she did not show – possibly because Trump took his anti-Juul stand just before conference. The meeting, however, did still show how Juul are using the Tories to build political influence. Max Chambers, the company’s Government Affairs Director addressed the meeting and revealed that he is a former special advisor to David Cameron.
During his speech, Chambers announced Juul are launching their US products in the UK – which makes Tory conference itself a kind of launch event for their vaping products. They also held two closed events: one a CPS-organised “new generation reception” for MPs elected since 2015 and their special advisors, another invitation-only party organised by rival Tory think tank Onward.
This is just a snapshot of the vast range of corporate-funded events that are at the core of the Tory conference. Capita, Serco, even the offshore tax haven the Cayman Islands are sponsoring events with ministers and MPs. Grassroots delegates get a walk-on role, but seem like extras in a movie which is all about giving corporations a chance to shape the agenda.